In a few days, Wake County will hold a ground breaking ceremony for the new Justice Center on Salisbury Street. One year ago, two buildings and a parking deck were demolished to make way for this new court house. While most (including myself) focused on the loss of the iconic Garland Jones Building, there were few voices lamenting the loss of the older Lawyers Building.
What made this building significant is that it was the last remaining part of the once grand State Theater, which opened in 1924 and closed around 1975. The Lawyers Building served as the entrance and lobby.
Roaring Into the Golden Age
The construction of the State Theater occured during the roaring 20s, a time in which Raleigh saw several large scale projects: The Sir Walter Hotel, The Odd Fellows Building, the Professional Building, and the Carolina Hotel, among others. It was built at a cost of $264,000 – putting the cost of a theater on par with many of the mid-rise projects around town.
It opened during “The Golden Age of Cinema”, which saw not only numerous building projects, but other theaters as well. The Almo and The Grand opened around the same time, a few years later saw the construction of the Capitol and Wake Theaters.
Showcasing Vaudeville and Silent Films
A typical Vaudeville performance (1929), location unknown
The mid 1920s were a transition period in America for entertainment. The predominant form of entertainment up until that point was Vaudeville, a which was essentially a series of live variety shows. Most theaters across the country at this time showed both Vaudeville as well as moving pictures.
A unique feature at the time was the use of an organ or cinematic orchestra to accompany the silent films. One such example was Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush, which screened while Raleigh residents provided the sound score.
As silent films became “talking pictures”, Vaudeville faded from existence as a form of public entertainment. The State Theater then began to show movies exclusively.
Decline and the Shift to the ‘Burbs
The State Theater continued to operate long after the “Golden Age”. In the early 1960s as urban populations shifted outward to the suburbs, it was one of only a couple of theaters downtown. By the mid 70s, Downtown Raleigh was similar to most other urban centers across the country: only a shadow of its former self. With most of the retail chains on Fayetteville Street making a dash for shopping centers such as Cameron Village and beyond, there was little drawing residents there.
As was the case with many urban theaters at the time, the movies shown shifted from family entertainment to those of an adult nature. It later closed in 1975.
From Place of Fun to Place of Incarceration
An account on Cinema Treasures outlines when the theater came down:
I was present when the State Theatre was torn down for the Wake County Jail in the summer of 1987 on Salisbury St. The theatre was in ruins. The building in front of the State Theatre facing Salisbury St. is called the Lawyers Building and it is still there.
The theater itself came down to make way for the jail, but the Lawyers Building (above) continued to serve law firms for another 20 or so years.
Erasing the Remnants
At the end of April and beginning of May last year, the Lawyers Building and the Garland Jones Building were destroyed to make way for Wake County’s new Court House. The Lawyers Building was taken down floor by floor, until the last remnant (the foyer) of the State Theater were permanently removed.
Barnhill Contracting Company was kind enough to give me and a couple others a tour of this building and the Garland Jones Building shortly before it came down this time last year.
A Persistent Lack of Downtown Cinema
Although in past 6-7 years Raleigh has made significant shifts toward the city core, there is a lack of cinema options. There is the IMAX theater, but it is specialized for that format, and rarely shows the type of movie you can get lost in.
For that, the closest option is the historic Rialto Theater, located in the Five Points neighborhood. It’s a great theater and a favorite of mine. It isn’t far, but it’s not exactly a quick walk from downtown either.
It doesn’t seem likely that cinema will return to the city’s core, and it’s kind of sad. Theaters are a magnet for drawing visitors, and a missing key component (think dinner and a movie). The return on investment probably doesn’t add up for such a venture.
I hope I’m wrong on that one.